Las Vegas Review-Journal

MSU students welcomed back; return to normalcy hard

- By Carol Thompson

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Alexis Rhodes sat with her legs crossed Monday morning on a cement ledge outside the Michigan State University Union.

She faced the steps lined with bouquets, wreaths and candles. But she mostly gazed at her knees.

“I wanted to see him,” she said, referring to her friend Brian Fraser, a 20-year-old sophomore who had been killed in a mass shooting there on Feb. 13. That evening, a gunman attacked students on campus, killing three, injuring five and causing thousands to take shelter for four terrifying hours.

Like other students, Rhodes was headed to class Monday morning at a university that had been irreparabl­y changed. Classes had resumed and campus was recouping a dim but familiar weekday buzz, but memorials, therapy dogs and a distinct police presence served as a reminder of last week’s violence.

It is hard to return, but Rhodes said she hadto keep moving despite the loss of Fraser, a business major from Grosse Pointe, Mich., with a smile she said shined like the sun.

“He changed everyone’s life,” she said. “That was Brian.”

The question of when and how to return to normal class schedules has been a vexing one at MSU. Nearly 24,000 people signed an online petition proposing MSU offer online or hybrid options to students for the rest of the semester. The university has just over 50,000 students.

Faculty can decide whether to conduct classes in person, remotely or a hybrid of the two, university spokespers­on Emily Guerrant said Monday. The university also encourages students to request accommodat­ions if they need them.

“Our mental health experts are telling us that it’s better for people to be together,” Guerrant said. “It’s better to be in person and to not allow students to become too isolated.”

Most faculty didn’t do a convention­al lesson plan Monday, she said. Instead, they provided space for students to connect after the violence and aftermath, or hosted discussion­s about class topics. Attendance was mixed, officials said.

“It seems like we’re seeing higher participat­ion in more

advanced classes than maybe the freshman classes,” Guerrant said. “The folks who are showing up for class are very appreciati­ve of having class to come to.”

The university set up social supports for students, including counseling sessions, and moved classes out of the Union and Berkey Hall where the shootings a week ago took place. Berkey is closed for the rest of the semester. While classes won’t take place at the Union, university officials may reopen the public spaces at some point this semester, Guerrant said.

“Experts note the distinct value of returning to common spaces and practices as a helpful way to find perspectiv­e and regain a sense of self and community,” interim Provost Thomas Jeitschko wrote in a letter to faculty late Friday. “To make this happen, we all have to work together, with trauma-informed perspectiv­es and actions.”

Some students on Monday said they were ready to return, reclaim campus and work toward their diplomas. Some said online it was too early to come back. Others spent the day at the state Capitol a few miles away, protesting against gun violence and in support of proposed laws that would place more limits on access to firearms in Michigan.

It was hard to return to campus, said Zoey Zupin, a junior studying agricultur­e education. She has generally felt safe on campus, although she always has been wary of walking after dark. The fear is worse now.

But it is important to return and be among friends and the community that experience­d the same thing she did. Zupin said campus was welcoming on Monday with the gestures from alumni and parents who visited to dole out snacks, water bottles and hugs.

“I think if I would have come back to a quiet campus it would have been hard,” she said. “It’s nice to see it bustling.”

Corey Bell, a freshman from Southfield, Mich., said he was managing better than other students he knew, who have had trouble sleeping since the shooting or have not yet returned to campus. Still, he feels divided about whether he’s ready for normal.

“There’s a percentage of me that feels like I don’t want to be here, of course, because of the shooting, but at the end of the day I can’t waste my time,” Bell said. “I’ve got to do my grades and stuff.”

On his walk to class, Bell passed a long line of students waiting to get snacks or hugs from the parent volunteers who had set up a giveaway station in front of the MSU Auditorium as a way to help students feel welcome on campus.

Heather Sertic, who graduated from MSU in 1999, spearheade­d the effort. Her daughter is a junior and was anxious about returning to East Lansing after the shooting.

As a mom, Sertic said her instinct “to feed and hug kids” was overpoweri­ng after the shooting. So she connected with other parents to set up in front of the auditorium.

“It was one person that came on campus and took all of that feeling of security away from them,” Sertic said. “I want to give that back to them. I hope they walk away from this and say ‘Look at all of these strangers. Look at all of these people that love us and support us.’”

Freshman Aidan Regan was buoyed by the gestures Monday from Sertic and the other volunteers who loaded his arms with snack food. Regan, 18, is from New York. Campus feels like a second home.

He said he was happy to be back but didn’t want the world to move on or forget about the shooting or the pain that followed.

“We’ll never forget what happened,” Regan said. “But it’s nice to see that we’re still able to get through it all because we’re a family.”

Students at the Communicat­ion Arts and Sciences building were greeted by a zoo of stuffed animals, flowers, treats and professors offering hugs and kind words.

Students are largely stressed and afraid to return, said Julie Fusi, executive staff assistant to the dean of Communicat­ions Arts and Sciences. She helped organize the Monday giveaway in part to channel her rage into a project that supported the students. She said staff and faculty wanted students to know they cared for them in ways that extended beyond the classroom.

“We’re your professors and whatnot, we’re not your mom necessaril­y, but a lot of us would take you in in that same way,” Fusi said. “I just hope that they’re reminded of this community here and if we’re able to make it a little bit easier for even a few people, or even just one, it’s worth it.”

 ?? JAKE MAY / THE FLINT JOURNAL VIA AP ?? Sue Dodde, a mother from Conklin, Mich., at right, embraces a student with a “free hug from a mom” as campus reopens for classes Monday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. A week ago, three students were killed and five others injured during a mass shooting at the university.
JAKE MAY / THE FLINT JOURNAL VIA AP Sue Dodde, a mother from Conklin, Mich., at right, embraces a student with a “free hug from a mom” as campus reopens for classes Monday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. A week ago, three students were killed and five others injured during a mass shooting at the university.

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